Tyler Arboretum began as a collection of over 1,000 ornamental plants amassed by brothers Minshall and Jacob Painter for scientific study.
In 1681 Thomas Minshall, an English Quaker, purchased property in Pennsylvania from William Penn that contained the site now occupied by the Arboretum. Between 1681 and 1944, the property was owned by eight generations of the same Minshall/Painter/Tyler family. Until 1944, it was a working farm and served as a summer residence for the Tyler family.
The Arboretum itself began as the private collection of two brothers, Jacob and Minshall Painter. The brothers were fascinated by the popular 19th century study of natural history. During their lifetimes, they managed to amass large collections of dried plants, rocks, and other specimens. In 1825, the brothers set aside some of their land to begin the systematic planting of more than 1,000 varieties of trees and shrubs.
In 1944, Laura Tyler, a direct descendant of Thomas Minshall, bequeathed the property to a board of Trustees that had been established to direct and oversee the land as an arboretum. Dr. John Casper Wister, Tyler Arboretum’s first director, was considered by many to be one of the great American horticultural figures of the 20th century. He set out to build upon the Painter legacy, whereupon he created comprehensive collections representing conifers, magnolias, lilacs, hollies, narcissus, peonies and rhododendrons.
Today Tyler Arboretum is non-profit organization. Our mission is to preserve, develop and share our diverse horticultural, historic and natural site resources in order to stimulate stewardship and an understanding of our living world. Tyler fulfills its mission through high quality educational programs, extensive horticultural collections and displays, preservation of its historic buildings and stewardship of 550 acres of woodlands, meadows and stream valleys.
The earliest portion of Lachford Hall was built in 1738 by Thomas Minshall’s grandson, also named Thomas. He followed a double cell configuration, known as a “Penn Plan,” with one room built in front of the other in keeping with William Penn’s recommendations regarding size, shape, room arrangement, and orientation. The original house was initially occupied as separate living units, the 1738 portion by Thomas Minshall and his wife Agnes (nee Salkeld), and a 1777 addition by their son Jacob and his wife Ann.
In 1821, Enos Painter, Jacob and Ann’s son-in-law, combined the two eighteenth century sections into a single dwelling. By the time Enos Painter merged the two sections, he had already converted the kitchen of the 1738 [west] section into a parlor and his 1821 remodeling removed the wood partition walls so that there was interior access between previously separated halves.
Lachford Hall underwent a transformation from a Pennsylvania farmhouse, to its present appearance after John J. Tyler, Enos Painter’s grandson, and his wife Laura Hoopes Tyler were married in 1881. With his mother’s approval, John Tyler renovated Lachford Hall into a summer residence. The Tylers’ changes included removing a greenhouse on the western facade, adding a large cross gable to the front of the dwelling, rounding the tops of the upper floor windows, and stuccoing the exterior stone walls. The stucco was meant to “finish” the building so that the changes in windows and rooflines would be covered. The new building reflected the “Country Villa” style as promoted by the then-popular designer A.J. Downing, whose pattern books promoted “romantic” styles that called for a move away from the symmetry and formality of earlier tastes.
Evidence of each generation’s renovations is easily spotted. Note the large stone threshold and how it is oversized in proportion to the entrance. The interior has been reconfigured numerous times, illustrated by details such as the current center hall plan with its 19th-century straight stairway, interior plaster work, and marble (coal burning) fireplace mantels that replaced the earlier 18th-century fireboxes. The cuts in the floorboards may be from the removal of earlier partitions and/or stairs. Earlier interior doors may also have been recycled during the Victorian “upgrades” with new hardware and sizing. With the introduction of interior plumbing and heating in the 20th century, Lachford Hall shows over 250 years of continuous use.
The Painter Library is a small but unique repository of 18th and 19th century manuscripts, letters, documents and books. It was constructed in 1863 by Jacob and Minshall Painter, bachelor brothers who had an unquenchable curiosity about the natural world. The high esteem in which they regarded their documents and volumes is evidenced by the unique fireproof vaults on each floor. The first floor contains bookcases where a portion of their large collection of books was kept along with a display of 19th century cultural items such as pottery, tinware, and memorabilia. The stove is from the 1860s period, as well as the several pieces of furniture. The second floor vault originally contained a categorized collection of loose documents and deeds; textbooks dating back to the late 18th century; books pertaining to the Society of Friends, including the writings of William Penn, George Fox, and other prominent Quakers; State and County Histories; a set of the Colonial Records of Pennsylvania; and other 19th century government publications. Most of this material is now housed in the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College.
The primary industry in the early years of the property was the growing and harvesting of grains. Cows and pigs were raised primarily to serve the family. Enos Painter (Minshall and Jacob Painter’s father) decided to shift the farm’s production to beef and dairy cattle. To house his livestock, Enos began construction in 1833 of a massive, three-story addition to the western end of the existing barn. Built into a south-facing slope, this bank barn is believed to be one of the largest remaining in the Delaware Valley. The first floor sheltered animals; the second and third floors provided storage for hay and grain to feed them. The barn currently serves as the Arboretum’s Education Center.
This greenhouse was built in 1871 by Minshall and Jacob. An earlier lean-to structure stood on the west side of Lachford Hall. It was originally built as a pit house and the brothers referred to it as a grapery; forcing grapes in a greenhouse was popular at the time. The floor separating the two stories was added later, making it suitable for growing ornamental plants and specialty market crops.
This was the original source of water for the farm as well as a natural refrigerator. In the lower level dairy and other foods were kept in special containers that could be placed in the cold running water. The spring would often run dry in summer, so another, less convenient, springhouse was later built near the Rocky Run stream.
Actually a root cellar, this building was referred to as the Fruit Vault because it was built to store apples and vegetables that kept well such as cabbages, turnips, beets, parsnips, onions, and carrots. Constructed in 1858, it was dug into the side of a hill and built of stone covered with cement. Soil was banked around the vault to keep the interior cool.
Tyler Arboretum Timeline
1681 – Thomas Minshall purchases the property that is now Tyler Arboretum from William Penn.
1707 – Thomas Minshall transfers his Middletown Township holdings of 500 acres to his youngest son, Jacob. Jacob Minshall marries Sarah Owens a few years later.
1734 – Thomas Minshall II, son of Jacob and Sarah, inherits the property from his father. He marries Agness Salkeld and they become the first of the family to live in Lachford Hall.
1777 – Jacob Minshall II, son Thomas II and Agness, marries Ann Heacock of Middletown.
1800 – Hannah Minshall, the only child of Jacob II and Ann, marries Enos Painter. They raise a family of seven children, including Minshall, born 1801, and Jacob, born 1814. An immensely acute business-person, Enos buys back much of the original land which had been sold off over the years. He turns extensive real estate holdings into profit making enterprises and invests capital wisely.
1817 – Enos, through his wife Hannah, inherits the property from Jacob II.
1825 – Enos and Hannah’s bachelor sons, Minshall and Jacob Painter, begin the systematic planting of more than 1,000 plants for study and enjoyment. Their collection becomes locally known as the Painter Arboretum. The brothers continue a lifelong pursuit of knowledge at the same time they manage the family farms.
1838 – Enos Painter builds a massive stone addition onto the western end of the existing barn to house livestock.
1850 – The Painter family is managing four farms and a sawmill on the property.
1857 – Enos Painter dies and his sons Minshall and Jacob inherit the property.
1863 – Minshall and Jacob Painter build the Painter Library for their growing natural science collections and equipment.
1876 – Ann Tyler, the youngest child of Enos and Hannah, inherits the property after the deaths of her brothers Minshall and Jacob. Her son, John J. Tyler, manages the property for his mother.
1914 – John J. Tyler inherits the family estate and makes Victorian alterations to Lachford Hall and adds a new wing.
1930 – After John Tyler’s death, his wife Laura Hoopes Tyler, arranges for the property to be left in trust as the John J. Tyler Arboretum. John and Laura have no children and when Laura dies in 1944, the homestead becomes a not-for-profit public garden.
1946 – Renowned horticulturist Dr. John C. Wister is appointed Tyler Arboretum’s first director. Dr. Wister begins creating extensive collections magnolias, cherries, crabapples, lilacs, conifers, and rhododendrons.
1997 – Installation of the Stopford Family Meadow Maze featuring a popular labyrinth-style maze and learning stations about meadow ecology.
1999 – The Deer Exclosure Fence is installed to protect Tyler’s 100 acres of ornamental plant collections from the ever increasing deer population.
2001 – Tyler first temporary exhibition, David Roger’s Big Bugs, is a huge hit with the public. A new Visitor Center is built near the parking lot to accommodate visitor needs.
2002 – Bird Abodes temporary exhibition features over 90 birdhouses built by area artisans and families.
2003 – Amazing Butterflies temporary exhibition follows the same pattern with butterfly and caterpillar exhibits decorated by community members. The popularity of the Butterfly House led to its becoming a permanent display.
2007 – Original installation of Tyler’s Vegetable Demonstration Garden.
2008 – Totally Terrific Treehouses opens. This very popular exhibition increased attendance for the year by 400%.
- Nature’s Enchantment exhibition features the magical creatures of Tyler: fairies, gnomes, wizards, and goblins who help Mother Nature take care of the Earth.
- A new permeable paving path system is installed in the 13 acre Wister Rhododendron Garden allowing easier accessible access to this heritage rhododendron collection. The project follows the redesign of the area by noted landscape designer Gary Smith.
A Quaker Legacy
Minshall, Painter, Tyler Family
Thomas Minshall I
(1650 – 1730) of Lathford, Cheshire, England, received a grant of 625 acres from William Penn on March 22, 1681. He arrived in Pennsylvania in August of 1682 with his wife, Margaret Hickock.
Jacob Minshall I
(1685 – 1734) was born to Thomas I and Margaret in their first house in Nether Providence. He married Sarah Owen in 1707 and the same year was given 500 acres of his father’s land in Middletown. Circa 1710, he built the first stone house on the property, known as Round Top. In this house, Thomas I and Margaret lived out the remaining years of their lives.
Thomas Minshall II
(1708 – 1783) was the son of Jacob I and Sarah. He inherited 150 acres from his father, including 80 acres of the original land grant and 70 acres bought from John Cheyney. In 1734, Thomas II bought another 50 acres, now known as South Farm, from Peter Trego. Thomas II married Agness Salkeld in 1738, and either built the western end of Lachford Hall or added to an original house built by John Cheyney. In the 1760s, he added the eastern end of Lachford Hall. Before he died, he also began construction of the South Farm.
Jacob Minshall II
(1738 – 1817), son of Thomas II and Agness, built the first stone barn at the Home Farm and began a large orchard. He married Ann Heacock in 1777, and they lived in the western end of Lachford Hall.
(1782 – 1838), the only child of Jacob II and Ann, married Enos Painter (1773 – 1857) in 1800, and added a small kitchen wing to Lachford Hall. They raised a family of seven children. Enos purchased parts of the original land grant from other branches of the Minshall family, including Round Top and the Middle Farm. Enos built the saw mill in 1814 and built the large stone barn at the Home Farm in 1833.
(1801 – 1873), eldest son of Hannah and Enos, and his brother Jacob Painter (1814 – 1876) inherited about 500 acres from their father and added about 150 acres in their lifetimes. They improved the farm with a number of springhouses, smokehouses, and other structures. At the Home Farm, they built the root cellar in 1858 and the library building (the Painter Library) in 1863. Stimulated by their grandfather’s orchard, the brothers added a number of fruit trees, including an orange tree which they kept in their greenhouse, built in 1849. They expanded their plantings to include over 1,000 specimen trees, creating the original Painter Arboretum.
(1818 – 1914), the youngest child of Hannah and Enos, married William Tyler in 1847. Ann inherited the family farms from her brothers in 1876, but took no active role in running the farms. The Tylers lived in Philadelphia and used Lachford Hall as a summer home.
John J. Tyler
(1851 – 1930), son of Ann and William, managed the farms for his mother. About 1877, John began renovating Lachford Hall with many Victorian additions. In 1881, he married his cousin, Laura Hoopes (1859 – 1944). Laura was a great-granddaughter of Hannah and Enos, through their daughter, Sarah Painter Barnard. After John Tyler died, Laura built the caretaker’s house in 1932, and arranged for the property to be left in trust as the Tyler Arboretum. John and Laura had no children, and when Laura died in 1944, a family tradition of eight generations was ended.
The Painter Arboretum
“There is something noble and pure in a taste for the beauty of vegetation. Thee who plants a tree plats for posterity and he who exalts it will continue to flourish long after he shall cease to enjoy his paternal fields. Let us cherish the groves that surround our ancestral mansion – look back with proud recollection and forward with honorable anticipation.” - Minshall Painter
Starting in 1825 and continuing until 1876, Minshall and Jacob Painter, began collecting and planting trees, shrubs, and herbaceous plants in the valley directly behind their home and farm buildings. Their collection of plants grew to more than 1,100 specimens, planted in tidy rows that radiated out from the farmhouse. The one exception was the giant sequoia, located on the crest of the hill adjacent to Painter Road. Today, over 20 of these Painter Plants are alive, some of which are state champions. Additionally, five native trees from the Painter brothers’ era or earlier survive.
Dr. John Caspar Wister
Dr. Wister (1887 – 1982), the first director of Tyler Arboretum, was a remarkable man. He has been called the “dean of American horticulturists,” influencing the field through his books, contributions to numerous horticultural societies, and extensive work in landscaping and plant breeding. Wister’s lasting legacy at Tyler Arboretum and elsewhere is a source of inspiration to gardeners for generations to come.
Wister’s interest in horticulture was encouraged from an early age. In 1887, he was born into the prominent Philadelphia Wister family, for whom the Wistar Institute is named (after Caspar Wistar, a distant cousin). Dr. Wister grew up on a 10-acre farm in Germantown, now the site of Wister Woods Park at La Salle University’s campus. He learned about plants from the family groundskeeper, and by the age of 14 had his first collection of 40 different chrysanthemums.
Wister graduated from Harvard University in 1909 and then went on to Harvard’s School of Landscape Architecture, with additional coursework at New Jersey Agricultural College. World War I interrupted his career plans, but the time he served in France gave him the opportunity to visit some of the great gardens of Europe where he collected specimens to send home.
A key source of Wister’s impact on American horticulture dates to 1930 when he became the first director of the Arthur Hoyt Scott Horticultural Foundation at Swarthmore College. In this role he was responsible for the 240-acre Scott Arboretum, of which he personally landscaped 40 acres. Wister’s focus was on developing a practical garden, one that would thrive in the Eastern Pennsylvania climate without special care. He continued his work there for over 50 years and at his death was named an emeritus director.
Wister became director of Tyler Arboretum in 1946 and remained until 1968, concurrent with his appointment at Scott. His vision for Tyler was to develop an arboretum that had both cultivated and natural areas. The site was extensively overgrown—in 1946 Wister described it as being “in a deplorable state” —and much of the original Painter farm had to be cleared and roads laid. “It was possible in the early years,” Wister wrote in 1960, “to bring at least some order out of the chaos of the old Painter plantings.” This gave him the canvas he needed to establish some of his greatest accomplishments at Tyler. His plant collections of rhododendrons, ornamental cherry trees, flowering crabapples, magnolias and lilacs are today some of the Arboretum’s most treasured horticultural resources.One of Wister’s greatest challenges at Tyler Arboretum was funding. In 1960 he wrote to the Trustees about the desperate need for funds: “No piece of land the size of the Tyler property can possibly be developed into an arboretum, or even a well kept park with the money at hand in the Tyler estate.” He went on to emphasize how special the property was, given the remarkable topography: “No other arboretum or botanical garden in the country has as fine an opportunity for development as this.”
Dr. Franklin West, former Board President of Tyler Arboretum, says of Wister “It is obvious that he didn’t fall victim to the malady that affects too many of the rest of us: the exclusive preference for one plant group.” In addition to building plant collections at Tyler and Scott, Wister authored The Iris, Four Seasons in Your Garden, Lilac Culture, and Bulbs for American Gardens. He also served as editor of several horticultural journals.
Wister also influenced American horticulture through his leadership role in important horticultural societies. In 1940, he helped found the American Association of Botanical Gardens and Arboreta (now the American Public Gardens Association) and served as president from 1954–55. For 24 years, he was secretary of the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
In 1966, he was honored by not one but two prominent organizations. Brooklyn Botanic Garden awarded him with the Garden Medal for distinguished service to horticulture and the Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain dedicated its Daffodil and Tulip Yearbook to him, the first time such an honor had been extended to an American.
Wister was described by West as “a gentle man, with an enthusiasm for plant lore that is very contagious. He always shares his interests with great generosity.” Relatively late in life, at the age of 73, Wister married Gertrude McMasters Smith, a noted horticulturist who assisted Wister at both Tyler and the Scott Foundation. Wister was 95 years old when he died in 1982, leaving two well-established arboreta as his enduring legacy. Thanks to this landscape architect, plant connoisseur, and true visionary, Tyler was transformed from a family farm into a modern arboretum of horticultural significance.